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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Extreme' Assault on LAPD Unit : Television: The story inspired by the infamous Special Investigation Section depicts a bunch of Dirty Harrys with malice. It is an example of excessive dramatic license.

June 25, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Frank Sacks said this week that he supports the concept of the LAPD's infamous Special Investigation Section known as SIS. If so, he has a unique way of showing it.

"Extreme Justice," which Sacks produced and co-wrote with Bob Boris, is less a story about cop behavior than a TV assassination of a police unit, one that itself has been accused of shooting first and interrogating later.

Originally intended to be released theatrically in the United States, the movie airs on HBO at 8 p.m. Saturday, depicting the SIS as a bunch of Dirty Harrys with malice. Arriving fairly soon after the war-zone portrayal of Los Angeles in the theatrical feature "Falling Down," "Extreme Justice" is one more hyperbolizing movie that defines the city as another Sarajevo.

The actual SIS unit is supposed to be an elite surveillance unit assigned to follow especially dangerous and violent criminal suspects. However, The Times reported in 1988 that during their shadowing operations, SIS officers often waited until after burglaries or robberies had occurred before arresting suspects, subjecting the innocent to unnecessary peril. At times that practice did indeed result in victims being terrorized or injured, and in some cases SIS officers also have been cited for using excessive force against suspects.

Directed by Mark Lester, "Extreme Justice" pours its own gas on these flames, portraying the unit as little more than a hit squad. This is hardly the first extremely violent movie about cops who resort to breaking the law themselves to stop hardened criminals.

But the real-life controversy over the SIS unfortunately pins a badge of authenticity on this story. Despite a brief movie-opening printed disclaimer saying that "Extreme Justice" was merely "inspired" by the actual SIS, the unmistakable impression is that the ultra-secret LAPD unit depicted here is the real thing. In fact, its original title was "S.I.S."

These are out-of-control cops meting out vigilante justice. Lou Diamond Phillips plays a renegade officer who is recruited into the unit by a loose-cannon detective buddy played by Scott Glenn. Ultimately, even the rule-breaking Phillips character is appalled by the SIS practice of refusing to allow suspects to surrender peacefully and instead goading them into doing something that will justify blowing them away. His opposition puts him in conflict with the rest of the unit, setting up a predictable clash with his old pal, the trigger-happy character played by Glenn.

Both cops and criminals in "Extreme Justice" are overdrawn largely to the point of being caricatures. Yaphet Kotto, for example, plays a Western-garbed SIS gunslinger who marches boldly into shootouts, John Wayne-style, as if invincible. Incredibly, he is.

Other minor reality gaps here concern the Phillips character's newspaper reporter girlfriend, played by Chelsea Field, who beats TV to every crime scene. Plus, her attempt to get her editor to run her initial SIS expose--she has no corroboration--is just laughable.

In more serious credibility breaches, "Extreme Justice" at one point shows the unit deployed outside a residence waiting for a rape to be committed before seeking to arrest the culprit. On another occasion, members of the unit wait patiently inside a bank for an armed robbery to start, ultimately triggering a slaughter that victimizes innocent bystanders. There's nothing in the public record to indicate the real SIS ever did either of the above.

Both sequences soar over the top, and Sacks admits they both reek of dramatic license. "We took the modus operandi of the SIS and carried it to an extreme to bring out and emphasize in the most dramatic fashion we could what they encounter," Sacks said. Instead, the rape and bank sequences depict SIS officers as animals who zestfully sacrifice innocent victims to stop a single criminal.

"I didn't want to make them heroes, and I didn't want to condemn them," Sacks said. Yet condemn them he does in the movie. It's no wonder that "Extreme Justice" may have been closely watched by the real SIS out of natural curiosity as it was being shot at various Los Angeles locations.

At least Sacks suspects it was, claiming also that his phone may have been tapped and that three SIS officers "arranged a secret meeting" with the movie's location manager, Bill Doyle. Asked about that, Doyle said that he had merely had a drink with three SIS officers that he was acquainted with. "We didn't talk directly about the movie, but they did want to find out what angle we were using," Doyle said.

The "angle" won't please the real SIS. "The bottom line to me is that whether we like them or not, I believe we have to support the SIS operation," Sacks said. "But they should be accountable."

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